Fire Fighting in Canada

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Comment: June 2009

When we set out months ago to plan this issue on managing the wildland/urban interface we knew we had some gripping stories to tell and some overwhelming experiences from which to draw. We didn’t expect that as the stories went to our the proofreader on April 30, the Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Services would be back at it, fighting another massive blaze and trying to save homes in subdivisions.

June 1, 2009
By Laura King


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When we set out months ago to plan this issue on managing the wildland/urban interface we knew we had some gripping stories to tell and some overwhelming experiences from which to draw. We didn’t expect that as the stories went to our the proofreader on April 30, the Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Services would be back at it, fighting another massive blaze and trying to save homes in subdivisions.

The same week that 800 hectares burned in the Spryfield area of Halifax (eight homes were gutted and 1,200 people forced from their homes) there were forest or brush fires in B.C. and Saskatchewan. Since then, there have been fires in Quebec and Newfoundland.

As Jim Murphy, a fire advisor for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Re-sources, tells James Care-less in our cover story on page 12, most wildland/urban interface fires at this time of year are caused by people and carelessness, and happen fairly close to the wildland/urban boundary. No surprise there.

Statistics from Natural Resources Canada don’t differentiate between forest or brush fires and wildland/urban interface fires so it’s tough to determine how many of the approximately 8,500 fires that consume about 2.5 million hectares of Canadian wilderness every year are considered urban interface fires. To observers it certainly seems like the numbers are going up as urban sprawl infringes on previously untouched forest land.

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When my family lived in Edmonton we could often see and smell the smoke from the forest fires up north. I was in beautiful Kelowna in 2007 for the B.C. fire chiefs conference, four years after the firestorm swept through the Okanagan, by which time much of the devastation had been rebuilt or had grown over. Just before writing this, I received a photo from a B.C. chief of one of the massive wildland/urban interface fires in Santa Barbara, Calif. Thankfully, such fires in Canada have been smaller and less deadly than those in the U.S. Still, if the number of wildland/urban interface fires is indeed growing, what can we do to change that pattern?

You know what’s coming. One word: education. Kelowna Fire Chief Rene Blanleil and his crews have embraced a wildfire education plan and as Ed Brouwer – a wildland fire trainer for Canwest Fire in B.C. – outlines in his Trainer’s Corner column on page 32, there are dozens of steps homeowners can take to reduce risks to their properties during wildfire season.

The term defensible housing seems to just be catching on. It’s a buzzword we all need to embrace, to teach and to start pushing, the same way we did for smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and residential sprinklers. It’s an uphill battle to convince municipalities and the seemingly all-powerful developers to consider things like wildland/urban interface fires when they allow urban sprawl. But it’s a battle we can win. •


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